Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Desires, Fears, Sex and Society

Ron Vannelli

Coloured circles.

The human sciences have struggled with the problem of Cartesian dualism for a very long time, certainly since the enlightenment; the problem of linking body to mind, biology to consciousness, animal to human has not been solved.

Many do not want to link these, considering them to be very different and fundamentally separate – almost like mindless, random, dog-eat-dog nature versus meaningful, purposeful, progressive existence.

Darwin, however, did not avoid these issues in his theory of the origin of species and tried to make a link between animals and humans through considering animal physical expressions (especially emotional/social expressions) as evolving into human emotions and eventually behavioural habits (The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Humans). But the human sciences progressively rejected such efforts and moved back to a dualism between mind (reason, culture) vs. body (physical processes).

Besides maintaining the dualism, this led to what might be called a religion of rationalism which completely separates humans from any animal-like nature, and which carries with it a number of teleological assumptions about human purpose and direction.

These have in many cases let political/religious ideologies override anything approaching science when it comes to humans, significantly perverting science when it comes to understanding emotional-cognitive processes as they relate to behaviour

In The Evolution of Human Sociability: desires, fears, sex and society (2015) I argue that:

if we take the full implications of Darwin on board, there is no evidence from science that there is a grand design or purpose in the biological universe, including in our place in it. Indeed, in Darwin’s formulation, chance is a very important element in the evolutionary process.

this does not, however, make a science of human behaviour impossible. Human behaviour (and human history) are far from being completely random processes. We follow the constraints of biology with its powerful urges and drives (as do all creatures), but also the impulses contained in our human nature, including the extremely important drives, instincts, emotions and species typical patterns of cognition, which, I argue, result in species typical desires and fears, as derived from natural and sexual selection during human evolution

Species typical desires and fears, in turn, can be treated as the major motivators of (and constraints on) human behaviour, creating identifiable propensities to species typical patterns of behaviour.

As such, they can represent an interface between the ‘micro’ elements of human existence (drives/emotional-cognitive processes) and ‘macro’ (socio-political) elements. There is thus, a degree of what might be called ‘order-in-process’ in our existence. But, to discover it we have to uncover desires and fears separately from preconceived notions of: direction, purpose, higher morality, rationality or postulated human potential.

In pursuit of this goal:

I examine human evolution with the emphasis on sexual selection and the evolution of possible sexual, developmental, maturational and psychological processes to see how they might have been transformed from primate sexual instincts, drives and reproductive behaviour into the human sexual and reproductive desires and fears which we observe today.

I consider – with additional evidence from hunting and gathering societies and from group behaviour – how some of these desires and fears could have been sublimated into social and political behaviour.

I examine the psychology of fear through aspects of child psychology, psychoanalysis, freaks, witches and the ‘thou-shalt-not’s generated by human struggles against ‘evil’.

I conclude with suggestions of species typical desires and fears and how they might relate to a science of human behaviour, especially as it relates to human social-political behaviour.

About The Author

Ron Vannelli

Ron Vannelli is author of The Evolution of Human Sociability: Desires, Fears, Sex and Society (2015). He is Professor Emeritus at Birmingham City University, UK, where he taught ep...

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